Sunday, March 29, 2009
Updated: March 30, 6:58 PM ET
Bigger is better for this Final Four
By Gene Wojciechowski
And our Final Four theme of the day is ... Big is beautiful.
Big East (Two teams -- Connecticut and Villanova).
Big Ten (Michigan State).
Big men (UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, UNC's Tyler Hansbrough and MSU's Goran Suton).
Big hops (UConn's Stanley Robinson and UNC's Danny Green).
Big city (Detroit).
Big stadium (Ford Field).
Big-name coaches (UConn's Jim Calhoun, Carolina's Roy "Guitar Hero" Williams, Michigan State's Tom Izzo -- sorry Villanova's Jay Wright, you've got to win a national championship to make our short list).
Big programs (the two Big East-ers, the University of Michael Jordan and Big Green).
In other words, size matters when it comes to this NCAA tournament. And you know what? I don't have a problem with the superpowers of hoops reaching the Final Four.
"That's how it used to be," said UConn forward Jeff Adrien. "There's no Cinderellas this year."
Cinderella wouldn't make it past curfew with this Final Four. These bruisers would take her tiara and use it to pick their teeth. It's a Final Four with pedigree, personality and muscle mass.
Nobody should be surprised that two Big East programs reached Detroit. It's the best conference, with the best players, with some of the best coaches. It's also the only league in which each team has its own cut man.
You should have seen UConn forward Stanley Robinson after the Huskies grunted and grinded their way past Missouri to be the first to reach the Final Four. His right shoulder looked like it lost a fight with a chicken claw. The upper right side of his chest featured a fresh 5-inch gash that was caused either by a Mizzou fingernail or razor wire.
"That's going to be there for life," said Robinson, casually glancing at the rake job -- not that he minded.
Here's a hint at how physical it will get when the major majors collide in the national semifinals: the Huskies' Adrien, who goes 243 pounds and is built like a 6-foot-7 steel filing cabinet, wears half-inch-thick thigh pads under his game shorts. The Big East slogan is, "No ambulance, no foul."
"One of our coaches says this is the third-best [conference] in the country," said Adrien. "There's the Eastern Conference in the NBA, the Western Conference and the Big East Conference."
That might be true, but the Big Ten is no slacker. This is the seventh time in the past 10 years that a Big Ten team has reached the Final Four. Michigan State, which won the whole thing in 2000, is making its fourth appearance since the new century began.
"Detroit, here we come," said Izzo, whose Spartans basically get home-court advantage. The MSU campus is only 75 miles away from Motown.
Carolina is also making its fourth trip to the Final Four since 2000. Those argyle unis and late March/early April seem to go together.
So, yeah, Cinderellas are nice. They're cute. CBS's Jim Nantz seems to like them. But the Final Four is the adults' table of college basketball. That's why UConn, Michigan State, Villanova and Carolina get seats at the featured four-top.
A year ago, all the No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. This year, two No. 1s (UConn and Carolina) made it, along with No. 2 MSU and No. 3 Villanova (which could have easily been a No. 2 seed). What does it mean? That the selection committee saw what we saw: the Big East is a beast, the Tar Heels are the favorites and there's a good reason why Kentucky should be very interested in making a run at Izzo.
"It just seems to me the people at the top have become definitively, clearly the people at the top," said UConn's Calhoun.
UConn survived a big (there's that word again) controversy as Calhoun had to address allegations of recruiting violations. The Huskies downplayed the situation before their West Regional games in Glendale, Ariz., but after squeezing past Mizzou, the players acknowledged the obvious: that the allegations mattered.
"All we can do is come out here and do what we know how to do," said Huskies guard A.J. Price. "Just play basketball as hard as we can and play for our coach. That's what we did ... we didn't let anything come between us to get to this goal."
None of the Big Four let anything get in the way. UConn, which won national titles in 1999 and 2004 out of the West Regional, overcame Missouri and "NateGate." Carolina, now with the most Final Four appearances (18) and NCAA tournament wins (100), overcame OU's Blake Griffin. Villanova overcame No. 1 seed Pittsburgh and one of the dumbest full-court passes you'll ever see -- followed by one of the sweetest hook-and-ladder game-winning plays. Michigan State overcame overall No. 1 seed Louisville.
Big programs. Three big games left in the season. Just the way it ought to be.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's Podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.